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Old Electronic Devices Provide Precious Metals for Recyclers

The electronic devices that surround you on a daily basis are built with many components that contain precious metals of gold, silver, copper, and palladium. From cell phones to modems and computers, old electronics are finding a new lease on life in the electronics recycling marketplace.

The recovery of these precious metals is no small issue. While a modern recycling facility can recover as much as 95% of gold, in developing countries, the crude dismantling processes employed may recover only 50% of this precious metal. Also, if done incorrectly, the recovery process can expose workers to a wide range of hazardous substances.

Overall, the current recovery rates of e-waste for processing are quite small. For example, for 2009 the U.S. EPA reported that only 8% of cell phones were recycled, along with 17% of televisions, and 38% of computers. Not enough of overall devices find their way to recyclers, and for the ones that do, not enough metals are recovered from those devices, on a global scale. Recycling results in only a 10 to 15% recovery of all the gold stored in e-waste. The rest is lost.

The recycling process varies among jurisdictions. The processing of e-scrap involves primary and secondary steps. In the primary phase, electronic devices are dismantled or demanufactured, and the components sorted. Further processing then takes place, often at secondary recycling facilities. This can involve a variety of processes to crush and sort material through the use of magnets, screens, and eddy currents. A smelting process is utilized to liberate precious metals from electronics components.

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